Clothing. Books. Desk lamp. Pillow and blankets. Clock radio. Paper and pens. Computer disks. Spending money. Sandwich and apple for the road.
My son and I had finished packing the old blue Saab for its trip from Maine to Middlebury. “Bye,” I said tearfully. “Take care!” The traditional cries of “Call when you get there!” and “Don’t party too much!” were proffered with laughter. I waved to him as the car pulled slowly from the curb.
But it was Mom, not son, behind the wheel, heading south to New Hampshire, then west to Vermont, apprehensive, her head swimming with thoughts of courses and classes and papers and dormitory life. After 24 years I was going back to college, to work on my master’s degree at Bread Loaf. My son was a Middlebury student, and now I was, too.
Colin was thrilled for me, but he could not conceal his bemusement when I had told him the previous spring that I, too, would be attending Middlebury. It was bad enough that he had spent several years on the campus of a boarding school where his father had been the headmaster. “Is there to be no autonomy for me in this world?” he must have wondered. Would his mom begin wearing Panther t-shirts, listening to Phish on a Walkman, drinking Copper Ale, and sporting a Club Midd sticker on her car?
But my life had changed radically in the previous several months and now I was making a fresh start, and turning into reality my dream to study literature and writing on a certain Vermont hillside, the dream I had nurtured since the early 1970’s, when I was an undergraduate in nearby Burlington.
Though at first overwhelmed, intimidated, and feeling as if I had walked into some sort of cult that worshipped the Adirondack chair and spoke in iambic pentameter, I took director Jim Maddox’s opening words to heart. “This is a place,” he said, “where you can reinvent yourself.”
Like most new students, I felt more comfortable and grew more confident as the days passed. Academic life is a great equalizer, and though my thirteen companions in Bob Pack’s Romantic Poetry class ranged in age from their early 20s to their mid-40s, we had plenty in common, mainly our efforts to keep up with an indefatigable teacher whose tendency to digress without warning from Prospero’s repenting in The Tempest to Alvy Singer’s lamenting in Annie Hall caused our heads to spin and made us laugh delightedly.
Bob’s ability to make correlations, and his expectations that we do the same, between literature and science, philosophy, sociology, technology, and theology, left us, after our three-hour daily sessions, amazed, inspired, and so spent that, perspiring from the hot classroom and our academic acrobatics, we would stumble out of class as if we had just disembarked from Space Mountain at Disneyworld.
Sometimes the intensity of the place became its own pressure, and like my fellow Bread Loafers, I needed a break. There was the evening at the laundry “garage,” where, I knew from experience, other students awaiting their clothing while it swished, spun, or tumbled, would either be speed-reading The Riverside Chaucer or pondering the merits of postcolonial fiction.
I was therefore prepared, clutching an essay about Frost’s poem “Wild Grapes” that I had photocopied out of the Harvard Review and wanted to study for a paper I was writing. But, desperate to catch up on Charles and Camilla, I had slipped between its pages a People magazine that I had bought at the Grand Union.
On the Fourth of July my son stopped by Bread Loaf on his way home to Maine after attending a concert. It was Parents’ Day in reverse. We walked the Frost trail, stopping to read the poems aloud. I showed him around campus—the library, the dining room, the theatre—paid for (some things don’t change) his bagel and coffee in the Barn, and introduced him to my dorm mates. He sat on the edge of my bed, eyeing skeptically the posters on the wall and the books piled on the floor. He seemed perplexed, even amused, but he left smiling. “I’m proud of you, Mom,” he said.
When I returned home in August, several friends and experiences richer, I was sleep-deprived but energized. As I pulled into the driveway, my son did not rush out to greet me as I used to greet him, to tell me my favorite baked ziti was bubbling in the oven, or to reach for my bag of laundry. So much for role reversals, I thought. The two cats, however, welcomed me with an enthusiasm seldom seen in felines, perhaps because they knew their meals would be served on time.
Inside, several days’ worth of dishes were stacked precariously beside the sink and a trail of socks and other assorted worn and weary items of clothing snaked across the floor. An unmade bed loomed in the distance. As the screen door closed behind me, an anguished cry rose from the back porch: “Oh no! You weren’t supposed to be home this early!”
In his defense, Colin had been working two jobs all summer and had simply put housekeeping on the back burner. When I arrived had had been asleep in the hammock. I shed my backpack and surveyed the wreckage. Suddenly, Middlebury—reading Wordsworth’s Prelude and debating over dinner the merits of memoir or Moliere or Middlemarch, meeting on Wednesday nights at the Waybury, chuckling over the puns in an issue of the Crumb, holing up during a steaming July afternoon in the cool recesses of Starr Library, and, after a night’s work in the Apple Cellar, emerging under a midnight blue dome studded with stars—began to feel very far away. I grabbed a sponge and set to work.
The old order soon appeared to be restored, both to a house and to a universe in which a mother is a mother. But in my heart I knew better, and I smiled as I stood with my hands in soap suds. “Let’s leave the dishes, “I said to Colin, who was guiltily picking up the flotsam and jetsam of his summer alone, “and go out for pizza.” And with a wink, I added, “And I’ll tell you all about school.”
Just six months later, I would lose Colin. On a semester abroad in Costa Rica, while participating in an environmental studies program, he would drown while spending a free day at the beach. In the short month that he had been there, he had fallen in love with the wildness, the beauty, and the tranquility of that Central American country, and with its gentle, loving people.
The blow was extreme: soul denting. I was going through a divorce as well.
But I would return to Vermont that summer. And be back in the embrace of my fellow students and under the wings of another caring, inspiring teacher. And every evening, from the fields stretched out at the feet of Bread Loaf Mountain, I would watch the sun sink gently and gloriously into the Adirondacks, striating the sky in pink and mauve. It would be the same sunset my son had loved to watch from his own campus.
I had a new goal now. I would finish what Colin had started at Middlebury.
For both of us.
Laurie O’Neill MA ‘98 is a freelance writer who has worked as a teacher, journalist, and publications director. She was a student at Bread Loaf from 1995-1998.